I see the Oxfordshire District Councils are bidding for the creation of four unitary districts and the abolition of Oxfordshire County Council. I am very curious to know how much the district leaders took their members into their confidence before this bid was put together and launched and what evidence those members were able to evaluate in considering the alternative governance models available.
These unitary districts would comprise:
- Cherwell & South Northants – crossing the county border
- West Oxfordshire & Cotswold – crossing the county border
- South Oxfordshire & Vale of White Horse
- Oxford City
Cherwell and West Oxfordshire have studiously avoided any coming together that might strengthen the case for Oxfordshire. Thus Cherwell looked to South Northants and not West Oxfordshire for partnership as West Oxfordshire looked to Cotswold for joint working.
Their approach to the local government funding crisis created by Cameron’s government is to hand over social care to the NHS, placing it out of any local democratic accountability and control. I suspect they would hand over the Fire & Rescue Service to the police with another loss of local accountability. That would leave highways as the major function of the county council and Lord knows how the problems of the A34 or the A40 would ever be solved if responsibility was split between four small and inward looking district councils. Then there is the Green Belt issue. It is becoming clearer by the day that the Oxford Green Belt is creating huge problems for Cherwell villages that are having to take the housing numbers to meet Oxford City’s needs. It is time there was a relaxation of the Green Belt boundary around Begbroke to take the pressure off of villages like Adderbury, Bloxham and Bodicote.
This bid was cooked up in considerable secrecy and, although Oxfordshire’s MPs were brought into the plot and have apparently all signed up to it, no one had the courtesy to involve Oxfordshire County Council at any stage.
Now, most District Councils have members who are also members of the County Council. As a past Leader of the County Council, I know just how it felt to know there was a fifth column in my own organisation with a primary loyalty to another one while there were others who saw the value of the strategic authority. This leads to my open question to anyone who cares to answer. How many district councillors had notice of the bid for district unitary status and had an opportunity to consider the evidence and to feed into a debate? My experience as a council leader tells me it is impossible to keep anything secret in a political group. If the district unitary bid was shared in any way with group members, it would have leaked without doubt. It is for that reason I strongly suspect it was withheld either entirely or until the last possible moment. In either case, there was no opportunity for sensible and evidence-based debate.
I ask the question because a moment’s thought will demonstrate that a single council for Oxfordshire has to cost a whole lot less than four councils for Oxfordshire. Similarly, a social care system that is answerable to locally elected members has to be more effective than one that is answerable to a monolithic and unaccountable NHS, particularly after the farce of the South East Ambulance Trust that rigged its emergency call answering statistics to protect itself. Not to mention handing over our first class Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service to the police with all the questions about their self-protective culture.
Finally and I hesitate to call George Osborne to my defence but his model for devolution to local government is the Manchester model that combines ten Manchester boroughs to form a single cooperative body to promote economic development, housing, strategic planning and health & social care to a body that represent a functional economic area – Greater Manchester. Oxfordshire is a functional economic area with a thriving university city at its heart and with strong and growing market towns with good transport links to join them together. If there is a case for structural reform, it is for the abolition of the tiny district councils and for the creation of a strategic county unitary council.